‘I’d wear a mac on stage because of all the spitting’: Lora Logic on punk, prayer and Poly Styrene

As Essential Logic release their second album 43 years after their first, their founder talks squats, scary gigs and her tempestuous relationship with her X-Ray Spex bandmate

It was the summer of 1977 when Lora Logic discovered she was no longer the saxophonist with X-Ray Spex. “I called our manager, Falcon, to find out when our next rehearsal was,” she says. “He said, ‘Oh, didn’t you know? We found a new sax player.’”

Only months earlier, Logic had blown an anarchic storm on the group’s debut single, Oh Bondage Up Yours! But the 16-year-old had sensed tension brewing with frontwoman Poly Styrene, ever since a notorious Sounds review suggested that Logic was “stealing the show” and that “her tenor sax sound is X-Ray Spex”.

“Falcon told me, ‘Poly says you’re a witch doing black magic on her’,” says Logic, now 62. “I cried for two days. My little world was shattered. I never wanted to play in a band ever again.”

Fortunately, she thought better of it: Logic would go on to form Essential Logic, a riotous punk outfit with duelling saxophones that released one album, Beat Rhythm News, in 1979. Forty-three years later, she is releasing a second Essential Logic album, The Land of Kali alongside a box set of her back catalogue. The pair of releases reveal her gift for the unexpected to be wonderfully undimmed by the passage of time.

Essential Logic: Wake Up – video

Born Susan Whitby, Logic grew up in Wembley, her childhood soundtracked by John Coltrane and Charlie Parker. “My father wasn’t well, always in pain,” Logic says, speaking from her home in Hertfordshire. “But the sound of the saxophone soothed him.” At 13, he bought her a tenor sax: it was love at first honk. “Once I got over the physical challenge of producing enough breath and my lips not being sore, I’d play saxophone five hours a day.”

But the jazz greats weren’t Logic’s north star. She “loved how sax was played in 50s rock’n’roll – the simple riffs, interacting with the other instruments”. Tired of playing along to her records, a 15-year-old Logic checked out the classifieds in the rock weeklies. “Most of them said, ‘Experienced musicians wanted’, but one advert said, ‘Young punks wanted’. There was a mysterious energy coming off the page.”

Logic auditioned in autumn 1976. “Poly opened the door, and we were wearing the same clothes: ‘granny suits’ – you’d find them in charity shops, pencil skirts with suit jackets. She was very raucous, very natural, with this big grin across her face. We really hit it off.”

Falcon, meanwhile, “had pound signs in his eyes when he saw this second young girl for the group, with her massive tenor saxophone”, she says.

They started gigging that January. “Everything was so spontaneous. It felt revolutionary and important – like a teenage dream come true. I loved Poly’s voice and lyrics.” The shows themselves, however, were “scary. There was violence, and in the toilet at [notorious punk venue] the Roxy there’d be people shooting up. I’d wear a full-length plastic mac on stage because of all the spitting – the bell of my saxophone would be full of spit. But I was 15 and it was very exciting.”

By the following summer, however, Logic was out. X-Ray Spex cut their debut album Germfree Adolescents with replacement sax-man Rudi Thomson playing parts Logic had written. Then, Logic says, “Poly’s bipolar kicked in and the group split”.

‘We’d build fires to keep warm, live off bread and cheese … I loved it.’
‘We’d build fires to keep warm, live off bread and cheese … I loved it.’ Photograph: Anton Corbijn

Logic enrolled in art school. “I didn’t stay long. My tutor was having a mental breakdown, and everyone was snorting cocaine at lunchtime. I didn’t see any art going on, really.”

However, one of her classmates, Jeff Mann, recognised the former punk star. “His dad owned a label and he kept telling me I should make a record. I said: ‘I’m not interested.’ But he pursued me, so I wrote Aerosol Burns in about 20 minutes.” The debut single by her post-Spex project Essential Logic was released on Cells Records: a feverish stop-start contortion of punk and rock’n’roll, foregrounding Logic’s sax and debuting her wild vocals, which echoed the vibrato of her childhood hero, Marc Bolan.

Essential Logic soon signed to Rough Trade, the locus of the teeming post-punk scene. Head honcho Geoff Travis urged Logic to assemble a group; among her hirings was a second saxophonist, Dave Flash. “Dave was 17, only slightly older than me. But I thought, How wonderful – two saxophones!” Logic relocated to a squat in Stoke Newington. “There was no kitchen, no bathroom,” she says, laughing. “We’d bathe at the Victorian bathhouse in Ladbroke Grove. There wasn’t much electricity. We’d build fires to keep warm, live off bread and cheese. And there was a DJ on the floor below who played loud funk and reggae all hours. I loved it.”

The soundtrack at the squat would prove a key influence on Essential Logic, whose dadaist collision of punk, jazz, reggae and funk delivered some of the most electrifying music of post-punk: their 1980 single Music Is a Better Noise marked the scene’s peak. Meanwhile, Logic moonlighted as saxophonist-for-hire with the Stranglers, the Raincoats, Swell Maps and the Red Crayola as Travis connected her with more collaborators. “My life revolved around Rough Trade and squat-land,” she says.

But by the time Logic recorded the 1982 solo album Pedigree Charm, she had grown disillusioned with the squat scene. “I’d always been a ‘seeker’, asking questions, but I wasn’t finding answers,” she says. “The people at the squat parties were false and artificial.” She had recently crossed paths with an old schoolfriend who’d joined the Hare Krishna. “I thought that she’d been taken by a cult, that I’d have to go rescue her,” Logic laughs. “But I visited her at the Soho Street temple and was overwhelmed by the people and their zest for life.” An out-of-body experience during an epileptic seizure after smoking “some really heavy stuff” confirmed for Logic the need for change. “I made a pact with Krishna: ‘Put me back in my body, let me finish my album, and I’ll clean up my act.’”

‘She’d found peace, finally’ … (L-R) Poly Styrene and Lora Logic.
‘She’d found peace, finally’ … (L-R) Poly Styrene and Lora Logic. Photograph: PR

She moved into Soho Street, later relocating to Bhaktivedanta Manor in Hertfordshire, donated to the movement by George Harrison. Here, she crossed paths with Poly Styrene again, who had also joined the movement. “She had a young child, and the community helped raise her. We formed a group, called Juggernaut, and played Glastonbury.” Their friendship would collapse and renew several times in the years that followed. “Sometimes she was friendly, sometimes I was the ‘black-magic witch’ again,” says Logic, who remains close with Poly’s daughter, Celeste Bell. “The last conversation we had, Poly had moved to Saint Leonards-on-Sea and she wanted us to open a tea shop together. It was a very Poly idea. She died shortly afterwards, but she’d found peace, finally.”

Logic, meanwhile, focused her energies on the Krishna community and mostly turned her back on music. There was one intriguing detour back into pop, however, early in 1991, when Boy George appeared at Bhaktivedanta Manor. “He’d been to India, and he’d read the Bhagavad Gita and he loved the Hare Krishna mantra,” Logic says. “Next thing I heard he was recording Bow Down Mister, his song about Krishna, and he wanted a group of us devotees to sing the mantra in the chorus. I didn’t sing on the recording, but I appeared with him on Top of the Pops, Michael Aspel and Michael Parkinson.”

That aside, Logic’s focus remained on her religious beliefs – she even sold her beloved saxophone to finance a trip to India – and raising her family. “For 25 years I was a mum, and I could not have dealt with having that creative channel switched on, because I would have been so frustrated with not being able do anything with those ideas,” she says.

But once her children were grown, her daughter urged her to reopen that channel. With the aid of keyboard-playing neighbour Haladhar, guitarist Jorge Morales and famed producer Youth, Logic recorded The Land of Kali. She wasn’t sure how she would release it. “And then everything seemed to appear at the right time.” Bell put Logic in touch with distribution company Cargo, who recommended she start her own label to release a boxset of the new album and Essential Logic back catalogue, along with her solo record Pedigree Charm and a handful of stray tracks and demos.

Next up is a tour for the new year. “I can’t even lift the tenor sax any more, so I’ve got myself an alto,” she admits. “It’s like a heavy necklace. But it’s all been an amazing, unexpected experience.”

• Logically Yours is out now on Hiss and Shake

Contributor

Stevie Chick

The GuardianTramp

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